By Brian Beard | 16 DEC 2019
I think Wolves have a very good chance of winning this competition. They fear no opponent and have the necessary players to take on the best of Europe and prevail. I look at the other 31 teams left in this competition and apart from Inter Milan I don`t see any reason why the team in Old Gold and black cannot go all the way. If they get drawn against Inter maybe it will be a different story but for now I take Nuno`s team to go through against a team that ss struggling at the bottom of its domestic league.
Lisbon are 30th in the UEFA rankings while their Turkish opponents are way down in 80th place. This is Istanbul`s best showing in Europe whilst Sporting were runners-up in this competition in 2005. Sporting`s best players are forwards Pedro Mendes and Everton loanee Yannick Bolasie.
Sporting to prove too strong for Istanbul.
What a cracker of a tie this one is. Getafe are on fire in La Liga, fourth just behind the big boys, Barca, Real and Sevilla, while Ajax were semi-finalists in the UCL last season. The Dutch side are on the verge of reclaiming their place at the high table of European football, as long as their production line continues to deliver. I think Ajax have a very good chance of winning this competition and so expect them to get into the last 16.
Leverkusen don`t score enough goals and concede too many for the number they do score so they may well struggle against Porto who are pushing Benfica all the way in Portugal. And in Francisco Soares Porto have a striker who has a goal per game ratio, better than one every two matches. I take Porto to progress
Neil Lennon`s team were very impressive in the way they reached this stage of the Europa League, notably the home and away victories over Lazio. Copenhagen should not prove insurmountable for Celtic who will not be in awe of a scoring record of just five goals in six group games. Celtic to reach last 16.
One day, or one season, Basel might just reap the reward for being one of the most underrated teams in Europe. Their style of football is up there with the best, free-flowing, expansive and effective, more often than not. Basel were runners-up in the Swiss League last season and are in a similar position this time around. They are ranked 28th by UEFA and in 2013 they reached the semi-finals of this competition. Apoel are ranked 29 places lower by UEFA and will struggle to cope with serial European qualifiers Basel.
Sevilla have won this competition five times in 14 years including three in a row between 2014 to 2016. They are to the Europa League what Real Madrid are to the UCL and thoroughly deserve their UEFA ranking of 11th. Cluj, on the other hand, with a Europa League best of reaching the last 32, this year and 2013, are well down the rankings at position 121.
Sevilla to march into last 16.
The Greek club are serial European qualifiers such is their record in Greek football and will provide a stern test of character for an Arsenal club that is sadly lacking in the same quality. Yes they did reach the Final last season but have not really continued with their progress, culminating in the dismissal of Unai Emery. It`s inconceivable to think that Arsenal will not have a new manager in position before this tie is played.
Olympiacos have one star player a leaky Gunners` defence will have to pay special attention to, Youssef El-Arabi. The Moroccan international has a more than impressive career goals ratio of 204 in 352 games, better than one every two games.
I think the Greek side will fancy this more than Arsenal.
Alkmaar were runners-up to Ipswich back in 1981 and that remains their best showing in Europe. They are maintaining a push towards UCL qualification in the Eredivise but are well adrift of the leading three; Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Lask are pushing Red Bull for the Austrian league championship but it is their lack of goal-power that is holding them back and the same might be said of their meeting with AZ.
Alkmaar should edge this one
Club Brugge are streets ahead at the top of the Belgian First Division with only one defeat all season. Manchester United, on the other hand, keep blowing hot and cold and may well struggle against a side that isn`t used to losing. This is a competition United won just two years back but as a club they have not pushed on with progress.
While the Reds have the fire power and pace to trouble any opponent it is in midfield and at the back, Harry Maguire apart, where they are vulnerable.
United need to get a good victory in Brugge if they are not to suffer the pressure of needing a result at an increasingly nervous and impatient Old Trafford.
United should go through.
The Bulgarian club may have been wondering how they drew the short straw being drawn against Inter Milan but they are only six places below the Serie A side in the UEFA rankings. On the other hand Inter`s defensive record in Serie A is only a shade behind runaway leaders Juventus. The major difference between these two sides is their record in Europe; Ludogorets` best showing was reaching the last 16 of the Europa League in 2014, Inter won the trophy three times in the 1990s. I think Inter will prevail.
Frankfurt lost in the semi-finals last season to eventual winners Chelsea and this season were group runners-up to the team Chelsea beat in last season`s Final, Arsenal. And Salzburg are no mugs either having been runners-up in 1994. They are also going well this season, domestically, leading the Austrian Bundesliga at the time of the Last 32 draw.
This is a finely balanced tie and it may come down to the team that is most used to winning and least used to losing which would tip the scales in favour of Red Bull, my tip to go through.
Two teams in UEFA`s ` Top 20; Shakhtar, 19th versus 20th placed Benfica.
Unbeaten leaders of their Ukrainian Premier League Shakhtar are used to being top dog but so too are Benfica who have already scored more than a hundred league goals as they strive to stay ahead of Porto. Donetsk have won this trophy, in 2009, but Benfica have won it three times, the most recent just four years back. The first leg may prove crucial and if Shakhtar can get a good enough victory at home they stand a chance but Benfica score a lot of goals.
Benfica to progress.
Wolfsburg have two quarter-finals to their name while the best that Malmo has ever done is reaching the Round of 32 twice, but significantly as recent as the last two seasons. The German side has its winter break coming up while Malmo finished third in their domestic league.
Malmo is the most decorated Swedish club and the most experienced in Europe. They are the only club from that country to appear in a European Cup Final, which they did in 1979.
I think the extra European experience of Malmo will give them the edge against a mid-table Wolfsburg team
Roma’s best showing in Europe was when they were UEFA Cup runners-up in 1991 to Inter Milan while Gent`s best performance was to reach the quarter-finals a year later. Gent are flying high in 5th place domestically while Roma are in sixth place in Serie A chasing an outside possibility of a UCL place via the league.
I think Roma have too much European nowse for Gent and should make the last 16.
Rangers v Braga is arguably the toughest draw for any of the British clubs. While Steven Gerrard`s side are pushing Celtic all the way in the SPL Braga pushed Wolves down into second place in the group stage with an impressive display at home.
Both clubs have one European runners-up slot in this competition; Rangers in 2008 and Braga in 2011.
A win in the first leg is essential if Rangers are to progress and even then European discipline in Portugal will be crucial. Gerrard had it in spades, if Rangers can glean a fraction of what their manager learned in Europe they will be quarter-finalists.
Brian Beard is Associate Historian to the Football Association.